Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards to return for his senior year

MADISON — T.J. Edwards is coming back for his senior year.

The Wisconsin linebacker made the announcement on Twitter Tuesday morning.

“I could be more excited for my senior season at Wisconsin! This program means the world to me and I can’t wait to get back to work to finish what we started,” Edwards wrote.

The team’s second-leading tackler this season, Edwards was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the best linebacker in the country.

The former high school quarterback told reporters last week that he had received a come back to school grade by the draft advisory committee. Despite all the production and success Edwards has had in his three years as a starter, there were still questions about his speed.

“That’s the hard part,” Edwards said last Thursday prior to the Badgers beating Miami in the Orange Bowl. “That’s why I’m saying I’m still on the fence just because there are so many things that go into it. It’s kind of tough.”

Getting Edwards back is huge for a defense that was tops in the Big Ten and among the best to ever be assembled at Wisconsin. The Badgers lose seven starters, including cornerback Nick Nelson, who declared for the draft after the Orange Bowl. Having Edwards to man the middle of the defense among so many new faces should help significantly.

LB TJ Edwards remains ‘on the fence’ about staying at Wisconsin or leaving for the NFL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Being selfish isn’t in T.J. Edwards’ nature. The Wisconsin linebacker isn’t a big fan of talking about himself, and that’s made the last month or so a bit difficult considering almost every session with the media includes questions about his future — will he return for his senior year or make himself available for the 2018 NFL Draft? Those questions came up again Thursday morning in advance of the Badgers taking on Miami in the Orange Bowl.

“It’s hard for me to be selfish and think about me in an important time like this. I want to focus…on this week only,” Edwards said. “It’s exciting time to think about things like [the NFL], but at the end of the day, we’ve got a very big game at hand.”

They do. Wisconsin is trying to get win No. 13, which would be the most in school history, and potentially finish in the top-5 of the AP Top 25 rankings for the first time since 1999.

Yet, it’s impossible to ignore the decision Edwards and several other teammates are debating a little less than three weeks before the deadline to declare. And while Edwards says he’s trying not to focus on it, he’s certainly put time into it, even talking with former Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt, who bypassed his senior year and was a late first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers last April.

“He’s been very huge for me, just [telling me to go with] your gut feeling and [about] doing what’s best for you and your family,” Edwards said of Watt’s advice. “You have to make that decision for you. Like I said before, it’s very weird for me to be selfish and think about me. It’s been tough, but it’s awesome to even be able to think about the NFL, so I’ll take it.”

Edwards, like most underclassmen, submitted his paperwork to the draft advisory committee, which conducts research on a player and determines whether he’s a first-round pick, second-round pick or that he should go back to school. For Edwards, who was a finalist for the Butkus Award (best linebacker) and a first-team All-Big Ten selection, it was the latter.

“I didn’t expect to get a first- or second-round grade to be honest with you,” Edwards said. “I think the biggest thing is everyone is just questioning my speed. That’s kind of the biggest thing I’ve heard. They want to see me run and things like that.”

But it’s not just the draft advisory committee Edwards is relying on. Wisconsin’s coaching staff, including head coach Paul Chryst, have connections throughout the NFL and are able to get opinions they trust on players like Edwards.

“Coach Chryst has been really good with all of us,” Edwards said. “Conversations with me, just giving me very good information. I think he’s a guy that truly cares about us. I don’t think he would ever lead us astray.”

There also has to be, somewhere in the decision making process, a little voice inside Edwards’ head that is reminding him what happened the last two years to one of his best friends on the team — fellow linebacker Jack Cichy. A pair of season-ending injuries led to his draft stock plummeting, and he’ll likely have to fight for a job as an undrafted free agent next season.

“It’s definitely a huge thing that goes into it,” said Edwards, who missed most of fall camp in 2015 with a foot injury and missed all of fall camp and the first game of 2016 after breaking his foot. “It’s a reality. You put that into your brain and take that into account as well.”

No matter what, the decision, which Edwards hopes to make quickly after the Orange Bowl, is one that will have come with intense research and plenty of soul searching over all the different factors in play.

“That’s the hard part,” Edwards said. “That’s why I’m saying I’m still on the fence just because there are so many things that go into it. It’s kind of tough.”

Grading the Badgers: Linebackers

During the 2017 season Wisconsin’s defense allowed only 92.6 yards per game. A big reason for that was the play of the linebackers.

The position group received contributions from numerous players this season. T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, Garret Dooley, and Leon Jacobs were the leaders while Chris Orr and Andrew Van Ginkel all contributed when their numbers were called. Edwards, Dooley, Connelly, and Jacobs all received some type of All-Big Ten recognition, with Edwards being recognized as an All-American as well.

Connelly was the team leader in tackles with 80 in total, as well as 3.0 sacks. Edwards was behind him with 75 stops, 2.0 sacks, and also was tied for the team lead with four interceptions, including one of them returned for a touchdown. He added in seven passes defended as well.

Jacobs, Dooley, and Van Ginkel were behind those two in terms of tackles, but were able to find the quarterback more often. The trio combined for 15 sacks on the season, including a team high 6.0 from Dooley. Orr also was able to find the quarterback for sacks on three occasions, despite missing four games on the season.

All of the honors that this group received were well deserved. The 92.6 yards rushing per game allowed was the lowest among FBS schools in the country. Wisconsin allowed 3.0 yards per carry as well, which ranked tied for sixth.

Linebackers are often thought of as the leaders of the defense, and it’s hard to argue that with this group. The Badgers got fantastic play from this group all year, no matter which players were in.

The game against Ohio State is obviously the black eye on this group, as it was the entire defense. Even in that game, the linebackers made their fair share of plays, including Van Ginkel’s interception of J.T. Barrett returned for a touchdown. Van Ginkel also forced and recovered a fumble deep inside Ohio State territory that the Badgers turned into a field goal.

GRADE: A – This group was the biggest reason as to why Wisconsin had the best statistical defense in the country. Allowing under 100 yards per game rushing is something that doesn’t happen by accident. Edwards was more than deserving of his All-American honors and will likely be selected in next spring’s NFL Draft if he decides to forego his eligibility.

Wisconsin’s linebackers were arguably the best position group on the team in 2017, and are more than deserving of their ‘A’ grade.

Wisconsin’s defense comes up big in win over Purdue

MADISON, Wis. | As afternoon turned to evening Saturday the Wisconsin Badgers improved to 6-0 on the season, defeating Purdue 17-9 at a soaked Camp Randall Stadium.

Much like the weather, the game between the Badgers and Boilermakers was ugly throughout. Wisconsin was able to beat Purdue for a 12th straight time thanks to its defense overcoming those adverse conditions and the difficult situations they routinely found themselves in.

On a weekend where college football saw two top-10 teams lose to unranked opponents on Friday, and several more unbeaten teams fall on Saturday, Wisconsin saw a plethora of things go wrong offensively, yet came out with the win because the Badgers did so much well defensively.

A pair of Alex Hornibrook interceptions, a fumble by Jonathan Taylor and a blocked punt forced the Badgers to step up defensively to keep them ahead in the game. That challenge was met. The unit is at the point where they expect to not only win games, but be the reason the team can win in an ugly fashion, the way they did Saturday.

As far as being able to succeed in stressful situations, that’s something the defense has shown they can be counted on for.

“We most definitely take pride in it as soon as we take the field and we’re in that position,” linebacker Chris Orr said following the win. “Everybody is saying ‘They don’t get in the end zone’ or ‘They only leave [with] three at the most.’ It’s most definitely something we take pride in.”

Purdue came away with two field goals in four red zone trips on the day. Their other two trips ended in a Leon Jacobs interception and a missed field goal. Both red zone stops the Badgers got could not have come at a better time for the team.

After the Badgers were forced to punt from their own 47-yard-line, punter Anthony Lotti had his kick blocked by Purdue’s Garrett Hudson. The ball was then scooped up by Race Johnson of the Boilermakers and returned 18 yards. Johnson had a clear path to the end zone, however he came up injured on the play and fell to the turf at Wisconsin’s 15-yard-line.

That was the break the Badgers needed. Over the next four plays, they pushed the Boilermakers back 10 yards, to the 25-yard-line. It was from that spot that kicker JD Dellinger missed the 42-yard attempt.

The other crucial possession came late in the game. After Wisconsin went three-and-out deep in its own territory, the Badgers were forced to punt the ball back to Purdue, holding a 17-9 lead. Elijah Sindelar drove the Boilermakers down the field, reaching the Wisconsin 7-yard line before Jacobs made Sindelar pay for poor decision and throw, coming up with the interception.

“I thought he was throwing it away,” Orr said. “I saw Leon [Jacobs] and the receiver and first I thought, because [Jacob’s] got frying pans for hands, he was going to drop it. But he caught it.

“That was probably the biggest play of the day. Definitely sealed the game for us defensively.”

Wisconsin entered the game ranked No. 8 in the country in red zone defense, allowing teams to score on just 66.7 percent of the ventures inside the 20. The Badgers were even better on Saturday.

“It’s just attitude,” Orr said. “You have to tell yourself and tell your teammates, ‘They’re not going to get in the end zone no matter what. We’re going to fight, claw, scratch battle.’”

Coach Paul Chryst thought the defense was the biggest reason the Badgers were able to come out on top.

“I thought our defense was sensational,” Chryst said.

Another impressive part of the second-half defensive effort was that it came without star linebacker T.J. Edwards. The junior was ejected from the game on a targeting call shortly before halftime. It was tough to lose a leader like Edwards, but the defense was able to rally around his absence.

“Obviously, it sucks losing a linebacker like T.J. [Edwards],” linebacker Garrett Dooley said following the game. “Great player, great leader, but the good news is we have other inside linebackers who have proven to make plays and step up in big spots.”

Before leaving the field, Edwards was able to have one last act of leadership for the day.

“[Edwards] just said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. I know you guys are going to keep balling out there and win this game,’” Dooley said.

Just like a great defense does, the Badgers overcame all the adversity that was thrown at them against Purdue. That’s something that cannot be overstated for this unbeaten squad.

Badgers doing their best to stay focused

For the first time since 2011 the Wisconsin Badgers are unbeaten through five games on the gridiron. Unlike that 2011 season, the 2017 version of the Badgers have an incredibly manageable schedule the rest of the season.

Wisconsin should be a favorite in every game remaining on their schedule, with the closest matchup talent-wise coming in the second to last game of the season, when the University of Michigan comes to Camp Randall. Truthfully speaking, Wisconsin shouldn’t have trouble with Purdue, Maryland, Illinois, or Indiana before they take on Iowa November 11.

Having a schedule like this can give some teams a reason to look ahead, and potentially overlook an opponent, which is something Wisconsin can ill-afford to do.

“I’ve been a part of it and your experiences help guide you.” Head coach Paul Chryst told the media during the week following the win against Nebraska. “I think that’s why you spend a lot of time talking to them about [not looking ahead] and yet in the end every person has to make a choice about how they want to approach it. You try and do all that you can, but at some point, they have to choose. That’s where your veteran leadership has to help.”

The Badgers are starting to attract national attention, moving up to seventh in the Associated Press Poll, their highest ranking since the Big Ten Championship game last December. With the road that’s in front of them, they should climb higher as the season goes on.

“We always have an end goal and things like that, but we know our goal every week is to win that game at hand.” Linebacker TJ Edwards told the media. “I think our team has such good guys who relay that message to the younger guys to not get ahead of ourselves so that’s not really a problem with us.”

For some, it might be easier than others to not look past the week at hand, as Chryst said. One who doesn’t think it’s a challenge is offensive lineman Michael Deiter.

“It’s easy, it’s the same approach as every other season. It’s just another week.” Deiter said. “The 5-0 [record] is nice, that’s good, but we have Purdue this week. There’s no reason to get ahead. You can’t go anywhere beyond the season if you don’t win every game during the season. You can really trip yourself up if you get caught looking forward. It’s just a week to week thing with us and I think we’re good at that.”

The Badgers have high expectations for themselves, which they should. A five-game winning streak to start the season is not something that should be looked upon lightly, especially when one of the wins comes at Nebraska. If they’re going to hit their lofty goals, they’re going to need to keep their focus on a weekly basis.

“Obviously your mind is going to wander and do things like that just because you have such high expectations for this team, and things like that.” Edwards said. “We come in here on Sunday and Monday and know what our goal is at the end of the week.”